Filling Big Shoes

JULY 25, 2011

I’ve already written a tribute to my late mentor and dear friend, Howard Brodie, one of the titans of reportorial artwork, master courtroom artist for CBS-TV, illustrator extraordinaire for the San Francisco Chronicle before becoming one of the premiere combat artists during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  In the realm of reportorial art he has been for decades my benchmark and, since his passing last year, my spiritual guide. 


Within the past year I have come into contact with a number of serious players in the world of combat art.  Some via valuable email conversations such as the rock solid Richard Johnson of Canada  (http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/kandaharjournal/default.aspx ), and others, like friend and fixer Michael D. Fay, former Marine and still currently active in the field, who has gotten me involved with his Joe Bonham Project, doing visual documentations of the wounded warriors returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.  I cannot forget to include the substantial artistry of Sergeant Kris Battles, USMC  (http://www.krisbattles.com/ ), whose work is prominently displayed at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, VA, as well as LCpl. Robert Bates, USMC (http://youropex.com/learning/interview-marine-combat-artist-rob-bates/ ), relatively new to the field but showing some serious chops that guarantee a very vital place in the world of combat art, and Roman Genn (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/228093/portrait-artist-afghanistan/roman-genn ) who in the past month or so has been the source of some very interesting connections for my embedding to Afghanistan. 


Of this distinguished group I wish to draw attention, last but not least, to Steve Mumford, another Michael Fay connection, who I have been fortunate enough to get to know and become friends with.  I had a lunch with Steve earlier this year at the Society of Illustrators before he was heading off to Afghanistan for what he felt would be his last trip of this kind before becoming a new father at the grand age of 50.  He came back safe and sound with a staggering collection of new work done in the fields with our Marines, some of which are featured in the current August issue of HARPER’S magazine.  Since his return we have had the pleasure of getting together again at the Society as well as a recent visit with my wife, Terri, to see Steve, his wife, the artist Inka Essenhigh, and their 2 month old Kaspar in Maine, and view an exhibition of his recent work from Afghanistan at the Center for Maine Contemporary Arts, in Rockport.


Now I’ve received some very nice, positive and, frankly, excessively complimentary, feedback from readers of Drawger and my Facebook page regarding the reportorial work I’ve done in the past couple years in relation to the military.  These have been for the USAF Art Program via the Society of Illustrators, The Troops First Foundation trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the previously mentioned Joe Bonham Project.  I leave for Afghanistan in a few days to embed for a few weeks in what can truly be considered a real assignment sans VIP treatment.  And as I leave for this assignment, I now have not only the spirits of Howard Brodie and Kerr Eby (look him up if you’re not familiar) to inspire me to meet their Olympian standards but the challenge of filling the shoes of Steve Mumford’s current benchmark work.  To say it feels extraordinarily daunting is to put it lightly.  After our first lunch, where Steve presented me with a copy of his book, BAGHDAD JOURNAL, a compilation of his art from numerous visits to Iraq, I had a chance to look through the pages at my own pace.  The line work was confident, the command of brushstrokes and application of colors masterful, the sense of light, shapes and composition jaw dropping.  It was an uninterrupted gut reaction from start to finish and that reaction was of being both overwhelmed by what I was looking at and underwhelmed when considering my own contributions so far.  For those of you interested in seeing one of the real deals, a simple Googling of Steve Mumford will provide many rewards. His on the spot drawings of military ER scenes are nothing less than masterpieces.

Steve insists that he is not an Alpha Dog, Type A personality, yet the stories he recalls, in both his book and in conversation reveal an artist not only on the field but in other circumstances where one might assume different decisions would be made.  He spent a couple weeks in a military ER room.  When wounded were being brought in the call was made for all non-essential personnel to leave the space.  He concluded that he was indeed essential as he was recording this event visually and remained in the ER.  No one ever asked him to leave. That's alpha dog thinking I need to develop- fast.

Phew.  Now what?  This trip will be a serious testing of my focus, spontaneity, and abilities.  I leave with far more butterflies about my skills than over concerns about safety or injury.  No matter how good we may think we are at times, reality checks in the form of other’s work remind us that there are always bigger shoes to fill.  That said and having admitted to my trepidations I also don’t plan on dropping the ball with this opportunity. I intend to make these artists, both gone and still with us, proud.


See you all in a few.  

All images are by Steve Mumford.

Photo: Postmastersart.com